Friday, March 22, 2013

Movie – The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966)

The movie The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (hereinafter known as TRAC2) was released in the 1960s not too many years after the Cuban Missile Crisis when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were very high.  That therefore makes this film very notable for the fact that the Soviets (or “Russians” as Americans commonly mislabeled them) are shown to be regular people just like Americans.  The impact of this was wide-ranging.  The film was very popular in the U.S.  It garnered four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  It won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy.  It was discussed in Congress.  And it was even shown in the Kremlin, where some of the Soviet leaders were visibly moved according to director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, A Soldier's Story.)

The film shows a Soviet submarine running aground off the coast of a small Cape Cod island, and the impact this has on the island’s residents.  It is mostly comedic, with several familiar faces in it.  This was the film that made newcomer Alan Arkin a star.  He received his first Oscar nomination for his performance.  (And 46 years later he was nominated for the fourth time for Argo.)  He won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy for TRAC2.

The film is based on the novel The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley.  You may be thinking, “Benchley? Massachusetts?  Any connection to Peter Benchley who wrote Jaws?”  If so, then you are good at making connections.  Nathaniel Benchley is Peter Benchley’s father. 

The title of the movie is a play on words from the famous, but fictional, cry of “the British are coming, the British are coming” by Paul Revere during the start of the American Revolutionary War.  Actually, Revere was captured by British troops before he got past Lexington.  It was Dr. Samuel Prescott, who just happened to be leaving a lady friend’s Lexington house at 1:00 AM (awful late for conversation, don’t you think?), who ran into Revere and then warned Concord and other towns.  A man named William Dawes also warned towns along a different route to Lexington, although he didn’t reach Concord, either.  Revere was immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere – “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”.  If only “Prescott” and “Dawes” rhymed with more words then maybe history would remember them as well as Revere.  (But I digress.)

In TRAC2 the submarine runs aground because the Captain (Theodore Bikel) wants to get a good look at America.  The Captain decides to send a landing party ashore with the mission to get a tugboat to pull the sub off of the sandbar it is stuck on.  The name of the Cape Cod island is Gloucester and there is some humor from the Soviets trying to figure out how to pronounce it.  (Although the island is fictional, there is a town named Gloucester in Massachusetts, and for the record, it is pronounced “gloss-ter”.)

The landing party is led by Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin).  They come upon the house of Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint).  The Soviets first try to convince the Whittakers that they are Norwegians.  Maybe it’s the accent, or maybe it’s the all black outfits that the Soviets are dressed in, but the Whittakers are suspicious.  The landing party ends up taking the Whittakers and their two children hostage, although not for any sinister purposes.  They just want to know what kind of military and/or police presence there is on the island, and where they can find a boat.

Rozanov decides to take most of his men with him to fulfill their mission.  He leaves a young sailor, Alexei Kolchin (John Philip Law), behind to guard the family.  They are soon joined by the family’s gorgeous teenage babysitter, Alison Palmer (Andrea Dromm).  It’s not long before Alexei and Alison are working on their own solution to a Cold War détente.

The Soviets take the Whittaker’s car, but it runs out of gas.  They steal another, but that person calls the cops and all her neighbors.  Soon Chief Mattocks (Brian Keith) and his inept deputy Norman Jones (Jonathan Winters) are trying to temper a misguided vigilante search for the Soviets.  Many more things happen, many misunderstandings occur, and many more laughs are had by the viewer.  I won’t spoil the climax, even though it is probably the most talked about scene in the film.  Suffice it to say that it is a very satisfactory one for everyone.

While it may be hard for the latest generation that has reach adulthood to understand why the Americans and Soviets in this film were so scared of each other, and didn’t just talk to each other, the rest of the people who see it will get it.  This is a fun movie, and it has a good message in it that still applies today.  If this sounds interesting to you then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Yaaaaaaaaay. I like this one. This is one of my parents' favorite movies, so I grew up watching it. I'd probably give it a similar rating as you. It's a very gentle comedy, but given that it was dealing with the tense situation around the Cold War, gentle comedy might be the way to go. I love Alan Arkin in this one. I love when he scratches at the screen door at Carl Reiner's kid, "Yes, very clever young boy to see that we are not from this country... "

    I agree, it's hard for us today, so far removed from the Cold War, to appreciate why this film was something special at the time. But I like this one.

    Nice review.

    1. Thanks. I happened upon this one afternoon when I was a kid. Back then the local stations would show a movie on Saturday afternoons and this was one of them. I've seen it again since, although I have no idea when or where that might have been. I know I saw it again because I remember being old enough the second time to have a "wow, she's hot" reaction to the babysitter. The first time I saw this I was too young to care about things like that.

  2. This is a funny film. I love Arkin in it. As a historian, I find it to be a good resource for presenting how awkward the relationship was between Americans and Soviets at this particular point in time.

    1. I feel that movies, by reflecting the attitudes of the times they were made in, can often hold a window up to times that have now gone by.